Why you should throw books out

by on June 27, 2008 at 7:43 am in Books | Permalink

I’m guest-blogging for Penguin just a bit, to promote the paperback edition of Discover Your Inner Economist.  Here is my post on why you should throw books out.  Natasha, alas, does not agree and sometimes she pulls them out of the trash and scolds me.  But here is an excerpt in my defense:

Here’s the problem. If you donate the otherwise-thrashed book
somewhere, someone might read it. OK, maybe that person will read one
more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that
person reading some other book instead.

So you have to ask
yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted
reader might otherwise spend time with? No I’m not encouraging
"censorship" of any particular point of view, but even within any
particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good. These
books are traps for the unwary. A lot of books don’t make the cut of
"above average to those readers they will attract" and of course since
you’ve spent some time with the volume you ought to be in a position to
know. (But note the calculation is tricky. Sometimes a very bad book
can be useful because it might appeal to "bad" readers and lure them
away from even worse books. Please make all the appropriate
calculations here.)

Note that the smarter and more discriminating are your friends, the higher the standard your book donations to them must meet.  Toss it!

mk June 27, 2008 at 8:16 am

On the other hand people prize variety, not to mention that different people have different standards for what is good. So the calculation is a bit more complicated. Why not just donate to a library? Who knows what the preferences are of the person who will one day pick up your book.

Anonymous June 27, 2008 at 8:29 am

One good reason to get rid of books is simply shelf space. When publishers emphasize hardcovers and trade paperbacks, and demand that their most popular authors puff up the page count so they can charge more, do they even realize they are undermining future sales? DVDs went to thinner cases for precisely this reason: a full shelf is a hindrance to further buying.

Fortunately, Kindle and digital media in general will make questions like these moot.

ninja_zombie June 27, 2008 at 8:41 am

Tom: another big problem. Some people read books multiple times, but don’t pay extra for it!

Jenn June 27, 2008 at 8:53 am

Throw books away??! Noooo. It’s a sin.

I like to review and touch the covers of books that I’ve read over the years, even if I despised it or thought it was a piece of crap. My thought is that that a book is a part of me once I’ve read it, and I can’t just part with it so casually…there would have to be some kind of incentive like monetary gain if I did decide to part with it.

Ted Craig June 27, 2008 at 9:04 am

Why not dump them on your local library? Or even better, don’t buy books at all and just borrow them from the library.

Dan June 27, 2008 at 9:33 am

I have to dissent from the whole premise of this post. Keeping books is important for several reasons, especially if you think or write (or even do both!) for a living. For one thing, I often pull them down to grab a quote or even refresh a perspective, and despite the usefulness of text-searching at Amazon and Google Books, many titles aren’t available this way or fully readable. Sometimes you want to re-read all or part of a book. Sometimes another family member, or a friend, will see it and read it. It’s amazing how often, years later, you’re working on something and you recall a passage and you can pull the very book down from the shelf.

Which leads to the second issue–the assertion that most books aren’t very good. I will argue that most of the books chosen by someone like Tyler are pretty good–they may not be Anna Karenina, but they contain something useful or interesting or both. I review books and find that almost all the books I’m sent are worthwhile in some way, to someone (aside from the author). This is probably because ook editors rarely want to cover bad books nowadays, unless the author is noteworthy or there’s an important argument to be made, so merely getting reviewed suggests a book has some merit.

I also can’t imagine why giving books away wouldn’t encourage reading (doesn’t a lower price mean higher demand?), and that’s good too. So if you must get rid of books for heaven’s sake don’t throw them out. At the very least, library book sales are a significant source of funding and you can take a deduction.

J Paul June 27, 2008 at 9:43 am

I’m recently faced with this very issue – with respect to a children’s book. My preschooler’s babysitter, knowing we are Christian (she herself is Muslim from another country), and knowing my child has aptitude for science, gave us a book on the animal kingdom, written from a so-called Christian perspective. This babysitter is not up on the whole evolution vs. intelligent design debate, and was just trying to show respect for our faith. However, we are not Christian in the sense of being fundamentalist, creationist, wanting to get the Bible taught in school in place of real science, etc., which is the kind of Christianity behind this book. I know those type of Christians believe sincerely they are working for good, but my perspective tells me their efforts are a great evil in the world.
Normally, I would dispose of toys, books and clothes that are not appropriate for my child (which is normally from having simply outgrown them), by giving them away. But if I do that with this book, I could be allowing it to go where it could be indoctrinating some unsuspecting child into a very wrong school of thought. So I should throw the book in the trash, right? But that goes against my grain, for reasons that posters here seem to understand very well.
The book is still sitting in my home†¦

Vincent Clement June 27, 2008 at 10:12 am

Toss them? No, burn them.

Daniel Reeves June 27, 2008 at 10:49 am

Tyler: A buyer or receiver of used books should use screening to determine that the book is probably really crappy. Problem solved.

Anthony June 27, 2008 at 10:51 am

Except in the case of very bad books that are well-written (like the creationist biology book mentioned by J Paul), donation is the way to go in any country which allows tax deductions for charitable donations. A $20 hardback that’s been read a few times is worth about $10 as a used book, and thus a savings of somewhere between $2.50 and $3.30 on one’s income tax. That outweighs the very abstract considerations of how the donation will affect other people’s reading patterns.

If one is really concerned about a book, donate it to a charity like Goodwill which will try to re-sell the book, rather than a school or library, and donate it in a place where the charity already has a lot of books for sale and a low turnover.

Yan Li June 27, 2008 at 11:32 am

Shouldn’t the decision to toss something, in a family, be based on “and” instead of “or” logic, i.e., as long as one wants to keep something, she/he gets to keep it? I vote for keeping those books.

Michael F. Martin June 27, 2008 at 11:48 am

Do you lend out the books that you keep?

Finja June 27, 2008 at 1:27 pm

how about your book – keep it or throw it away?

i keep basically all the books that i have read. there are only a few that are so bad that i haven’t read them (usually gifts, not from my amazon list) – i sell those on ebay.

Cora June 27, 2008 at 1:51 pm

Donating or sharing a book may lower the cost of reading relative to some other activity the person might have taken up (such as updating their Facebook page or blogging…) Being the cheapskate that I am, I have been known to read a used book and liked the author enough to go out and actually spend money on another one of his book….

Gunnar W June 27, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I believe in keeping books and lending them out. I also believe their are books out there that should be owned, if simply to references them or help you find your own words through the ideas of others. And yes there ARE bad books, like those that serve solely for propaganda and/or hate, *cough* Mid East *cough*, but they help us realize what kind of people there really are out there. Should we shelter our minds just because their bad? No we should know they at least exist or even read them to understand what exactly goes on in the minds of others. Of course if we’re talking specifically BAD non-fiction, throwing them away might be good, because a bad non-fiction is neither entertaining or informative, just a waste of time.

Jacqueline June 27, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Some of the people suggesting donating books to the library are making comments that indicate that they think these books will then end up in the library’s collection. That’s almost never the case. Almost all books donated to libraries end up in the library book sale.

Eric H June 27, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Leave them in the seat pocket on your next plane ride.

Paul N June 27, 2008 at 9:33 pm

Tyler’s analysis assumes that the cost of the book is less than the value of the time spent reading it – that’s surely true for him, but not for the typical person who buys used books.

Johnhenry June 28, 2008 at 10:18 am

Someone once said that if you get 1 new idea from a book, that makes it worth reading. By that definition I have never in my life read a book that was not worth reading.

Might I have gained more by reading something else? Perhaps but that is probably unknowable.

Instead of throwing books out, send them to the troops in Iraq. They are desperate for anything to read. go to http://www.books for soldiers.org , http://www.operationpaperback.org or other organizations.

Throwing away books that are in physically readable is a sin and people who do it should burn in Hell.:>

Well, perhaps that is an overstatement but don’t do it anyway.

John Henry

Sal Paradise June 30, 2008 at 1:36 am

Robin, passing a poor book on to someone else is not good karma any more than passing on a pair of used underwear or a hideous worn shirt is.

I’m entirely with Tyler on this. Bad book? Toss it. Socks with holes in them? Garbage. William Shatner recording? Away with it.

I currently keep all the poor books I have on a special shelf which is a ‘help yourself’ shelf for visitors. Mostly it’s paperbacks bought in some southeast asian airport for the flight which appeal to someone (but really should never be re-read by me) and no harm no foul if they get taken.

But horrible horrible horrible books like Piercing the Darkness (quite simply the worst book I’ve ever read, ‘generously’ donated by another English speaker in Japan) should be burned without a second thought.

David July 2, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I am one of the people that buys books from my libraray on a regular basis, when I no longer want the book I donate it back. A few libraries in my area sell all the donated used books for a fraction of retail cost. I’ve seen the ones I donated up for sale. Books should never be thrown out, unless they teach ignorance!

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